I WISH it was something cooler, hipper, but for the past few days I’ve been hooked to a cover of the classic Whitney Houston song “I Will Always Love You.” I discovered it when I did what I always do when I’m either bored or restless, bored with restlessness, restlessly bored: watch youttube clips of singing competitions, wait for the moment when the judge’s chair turns, and there revealed is the face behind the voice, revel as the family watching the singer move on to the next round breaks down with joy in front of the camera, press repeat. My favourite go-to in the past few months has been the UK version of The Voice. Unlike the original US version, which is an ongoing contest really between the tattooed Adam Levine and the tall swaggering Blake Shelton, and where the judges are a bit too eager to be the first one to turn their chairs, the UK version seems a little more dignified (even if restrained). The judges more often than not wait until the end of the song before they press their buttons. will-i.am whose music I don’t really listen to, but whose taste I trust, and mostly because I like his fashion sense (a kind of urban eclectic, mix and match, with a hat), is precisely the kind of judge I wish would turn for me. He would know the next best thing if he heard it. And he would probably wait until I finished singing my song.
Well, I was not the next new thing, and no judges were turning their chairs for me in the foreseeable future, but the next new thing, the one in the clip I was just watching was a guy named Tom Rickels. Perhaps it was his refreshing, earnest rendition of a Justin Bieber song. (You have to admit that his newest album is great!) Or perhaps it was his light yellow Hawaiian-ish looking shirt (tropical regalia of ease). Or just his smile— wide, all-out, all-teeth, the kind that always indicated to me a childlike tendency to please or an adolescent impulse for recklessness, or both. It was the kind of smile that could easily turn into a playful bite, given the right circumstances. But the next thing I knew, I had typed his name in the youtube search bar and soon enough I was going through all the videos that he had posted on the net. Most of them were covers. Some of them were originals. My favorite of course, was the Whitney song, a staple of my 80s childhood, but in Tom Rickel’s version rendered in a late 90’s grunge folk aesthetic of subtle guitar chords coupled with an Alanis Morisette kind of emotional in-your-faceness. It seemed like the past remembering an even more distant version of itself. A past folded inside out, then once over again, and then unfurled in one corner towards the back. Like a memory of remembering. Or I was back in college in the late 90s and thinking about high school in the early 90s, but since here I was in 2016, and the college of remembering was a memory in itself, there was perhaps no other name to call it except the present moment.
For those who grew up with the internet, it’s easy to take for granted the relative ease with which this pursuit of an interest can be made. How easy it is to have one’s attention caught, and if it is caught tightly enough, to want to find out more, to in fact find more by the mere click of a mouse and then move from one video to the next and then another. The speed with which one can move from curiosity, to interest, to perhaps even obsession. For those of us older, we can’t help but remember how precarious and unpredictable these affairs used to be. I’m reminded how difficult it was to find the poems of a potentially favorite poet.
Potentially a favorite because even if my interest was there, this was no guarantee that I could readily fulfill it. Lucky if one studied in a school with a good library. Lucky if the library was well-stocked. Lucky if the one copy of the poet’s book was not taken out, or worse missing. To indulge then in an obsession, not only demanded a particular privilege of access, but also a certain kind of luck.
These days, it’s a matter less of access than it is of attention. How many videos is it really humanly possible to watch in four hours without having one’s eyes fall out from exhaustion. How many times can one click on a video to repeat it. Technically an infinite number. In reality, only so much. Until having so swiftly satisfied one’s curiosity, one begins to look for something else. And when there’s nothing more for the moment? Then to return to what’s already been watched. I wonder if this is the reason why cover songs continue to be popular. When the rate of creation, a rate that evidence shows takes time, remains highly unpredictable, is characterised by its erratic nature rather than its systematic regularity, it is no surprise in the waylay of waiting for the elusive new song, face, voice, our impulse is to return to old songs and sing them again, in a new way to ourselves. I suppose, in the music world, covers don’t carry as much weight as the birth of the new original. But I have a soft spot for these covers. They remind me of the human impulse to honor what we have been moved by, a kind of paying backward. They are testaments to second chances, third or fourth. They are reminders of what we love, what we used to love, may still love this time around. We will kind of always love them.